Picture this: You've been feeling off for weeks, and you finally make an appointment with your doctor. But once you’re there, they don't seem to take your concerns seriously. Many people call this medical gaslighting. While it can happen to anyone, and already marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable, it’s a common experience for women: According to theSkimm’s 2023 State of Women survey, conducted by The Harris Poll, more than half of millennial women report seeking treatment from doctors who they say didn’t believe them or ignored their needs.
While physicians are responsible for their conduct, getting appropriate care often requires advocating for yourself. To find out how best to do that — plus the actual words you need to say — we turned to a few experts: LaTasha Seliby Perkins, MD, an assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine; Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD; cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Mieres, MD, a professor of cardiology at Northwell Health; and Karen Spencer, PhD, a professor of health and behavioral sciences at the University of Colorado Denver.
What is medical gaslighting?
Medical gaslighting is when medical professionals dismiss patients’ symptoms or experiences. It’s a behavior that can stem from bias in the health care system. It’s existed for decades, causing many patients to not get the care or treatment they need. Both Spencer and Dr. Mieres point out that over the past 100 years of medicine, most funding, time, and attention went into the study of how diseases primarily affected white, cis-gender men. It’s created gaps in how medical providers understand diseases today.
Combine those institutional knowledge gaps and discrimination in health care with overworked medical providers, you get an epidemic of medical gaslighting, says Spencer. “Our health care system has a lot of time and financial constraints to see a lot of patients in short times,” she says. “Uncertainty or decision-making under pressure can lead to things getting missed or misunderstood.”
The consequences of medical gaslighting can be serious: Negative health outcomes like high maternal mortality rates, misdiagnoses, and mental and emotional stress, to name a few. “It can be lethal in some cases,” says Dr. Mieres. In others, it means waiting years for a diagnosis — which could mean symptoms get worse before they get better.
What are some signs of medical gaslighting?
Not being listened to or being interrupted. Dr. Mieres said that this is where medical gaslighting can start.
Questions that go unanswered or your doctor won’t discuss symptoms. Meaning, you don’t feel like you’re getting the full picture. “It really narrows your ability to make an informed decision about treatments and a path forward,” says Rubenstein.
Discrediting prior care. When you suggest a possible diagnosis or course of treatment suggested by a previous provider, you might hear, “‘That doctor didn't know what they were doing,’ [or] ‘You don't have that,’ without doing further evaluation, assessment and exploration,” says Rubenstein.
Feeling blamed for your issue. Instead of working with you to find a solution, your doctor might suggest that your condition is your fault, or blame it on weight, says Rubenstein.
Being told that ‘it’s all in your head.’ This is especially true for women of color, says Spencer. “They go to the doctor to complain about a physical symptom, and are basically dismissed or told that it's psychological, it's all in their head,” Spencer says.
How can I avoid being gas-lit by my doctors?
The best thing you can do is go to your doctor visits prepared. “You don't show up to your accountant to prepare your taxes without receipts. You should do the same thing as a patient,” Dr. Mieres says. That means walking into your appointment with “as much objective data as you can,” says Rubenstein. Bring any previous test results, diagnoses, or notes from prior appointments.
If you still feel like you’re still not being listened to, speak up. “Interrupting the process can have a positive effect,” says Dr. Mieres.
Here is what you can say in specific situations…
At the beginning of your appointment
“I've felt really dismissed by other doctors, and I want to make sure that doesn't happen here.”
If your doctor dismisses your symptoms
“Can you help me to understand why these [symptoms] aren't significant? Because they're really causing a lot of distress in my daily life.”
If they tell you nothing is really wrong
“I value your expertise so much, and I also value my instincts and my own experiences. Can you help me understand what led you to that conclusion?”“Are there other possibilities that we're not thinking about?”
If they say your weight is to blame
“I understand that there are medical issues that are directly connected to weight. However, I want to dig deeper to see if it's more than just weight, because I don't want to miss something important.”
If they deny your request to look into the issue further
“I understand where you're coming from, and I would still really like to be able to have this test or be able to consult with a specialist on this issue.”
“If that particular specialist/test isn't necessary for my symptoms, is there another one that you recommend?”
If your appointment is ending and you’re not satisfied
“I think we should dig deeper. Should we reschedule? Are there other tests we can do?”
If speaking up doesn’t help, Dr. Perkins says, “There's nothing wrong with getting a second opinion.” Once you find a doctor you like, try to stick with them and build trust over time. “It's important to have at least one doctor on your team who … knows your history and can better help guide you so that you can make these decisions together,” she says.
Updated on Aug. 1 to reflect new information.
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